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Bottom of Lake Tahoe to be mapped

B.H. Bose

Stories about a bottomless Lake Tahoe and sunken ships filled with gold are common tales that have been told hereabouts for many decades. Although considered mostly fables, the ultimate truth to many of these legendary accounts will be discovered when the bottom of the lake is finally mapped later this summer.

“It is very important and is a long time overdue,” said Susan Lindstrom, a local consulting archaeologist. “We will finally see what the exact topography looks like. Our perception of the area may not change dramatically, but it will provide more fine-grained results.”

A topography study of the lake hasn’t been done since the 1920s, said Dale A. Cox, spokesman for the United States Geological Survey, the federal organization behind the study.

Almost all the data on submerged terrain comes from that 70-year-old research project. A better, more defined picture of the topography will be provided in August.

“We are bringing a boat to Lake Tahoe to get a three-dimensional photographic view of objects as small as a Volkswagen (Beetle),” said Cox. “The last one was done in the 1920s. This one will give us a three-dimensional picture that will tell us the exact area of Lake Tahoe.”

As part of the Presidential Deliverables, which stemmed from last summer’s Presidential Forum, the USGS agreed to do a number of projects within the Tahoe Basin.

One was a study on the presence of methyl tertiary butyl ether in Lake Tahoe, another was a study on the feasibility of introducing native Lahontan cutthroat trout back to the lake, and the organization agreed to produce an official, topographical map of the bottom of the lake.

The map will be completed in approximately two weeks. The 27-foot boat is due to arrive in Lake Tahoe by Aug. 2. It is arriving from Louisiana and will contain sensitive multi-beamed acoustic sonar equipment that will bounce signals from the vessel to the lake floor and back to an on-board computer. Cox said the boat will most likely be put into the lake and remain in a marina in Tahoe City while the project is underway.

“It is almost like a mowing a lawn. You go back and forth, back and forth,” he said, describing the process.

Already, this “ocean exploration technology known as ‘multi-beam bathymetry,'” said Cox, has been used extensively to map the ocean floor off the coast of California and other areas. As it did in those cases, it will provide high resolution, digital pictures of the lake’s floor. It has even uncovered a few other mysteries while mapping the topography.

“There are a bunch of questions surrounding the depths of Lake Tahoe. I have heard about stage coaches that contain gold, locomotives and B-52s that are on the bottom of the lake,” Cox said. “Those could be answered. We have found previously undiscovered ships off the coast of California.”

With its technology, objects as small as a compact car will show up on the images. Because of that, Lindstrom hopes a map of tree trunks, among others, will evolve from the project. By finding where these trees are, Lindstrom can scuba dive to them, and determine their age.

“I have been doing submerged stump research since 1985,” she said. “I have already discovered 22 stumps, which through Carbon-14 dating, are about 6,000 years old. That means that back then, the water level of the lake was at least 20 feet lower than it is today. While they are not as wide as a VW, hopefully we will be able to map these stumps, which can be 16-feet high.”

Lindstrom is also excited with the mapping because of the mysteries it could uncover. There are stories of barges and ships sinking that have yet to be discovered, along with Washoe Tribe stories of islands and other land forms on the lake, Lindstrom said. The mapping could provide evidence to many of the Washoe oral traditions, which have been handed down from generation to generation.

While the mysterious of Lake Tahoe will continue, the USGS, part of the Department of the Interior, will provide topographic and pictorial documentation of the lake’s floor. The data will be used to help understand sediment patterns, lake-floor geology, and underwater sliding, Cox said.

“The shaded-relief product should be amazing, giving a person the ability to virtually fly over the lake’s floor and explore the many canyons and crags,” said Michael V. Shulters, acting western regional director of the USGS. “The last published map of the bottom of Lake Tahoe was done in the 1920s, so this project should immensely improve our understanding of Lake Tahoe and put a few myths to rest.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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